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The Real Thing (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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In many ways it’s a period piece, rooted firmly in the 1980s of its first production. In other aspect, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is as up-to-date as anyone’s current professional or domestic crisis. Kate Saxon’s direction and Simon Higlett’s revolving set for this new ETT and West Yorkshire Playhouse production keep the space between then and now as fluid as the story itself.

As you probably know, the central character is a playwright, Henry. After the first scene, in which Henry’s wife Charlotte and an actor called Max somewhat come to grief in Henry’s latest drama, we’re back in their real world. Charlotte and Henry’s relationship is disintegrating as fast of the one in their play; the catalyst is Max’s wife Annie, also an actress.

It’s taken at a brisk pace – too much so for some of the dialogue to make its proper effect. That means that on occasion we’re conscious of types rather than people. So Max (Simon Scardfield)’s genuine anguish as he realises that he’s lost Annie (Marianne Oldham) to Henry (Gerald Kyd) is too close an echo of the breaking heart of the character he has portrayed in the first scene.

Sarah Ball makes Charlotte into an enigmatic sort of woman, but one well able to make mincemeat out of any problem, human or otherwise, which might stray into her path. The political activist Brodie (Sandy Batchelor), whose cause Annie has espoused, and Billy (Adam O’Brian) – the actor with whom she is paired for the play by and about Brodie – are both to some extent ciphers, as is Debbie, the stroppy teenage daughter of Charlotte and Henry, played by Georgina Leonidas.

Oldham gives a superbly rounded portrait of a woman with a career as well as a yearning for personal and domestic harmony. Kyd, that tendency to gabble apart, matches her as the egocentric playwright. They may not be our ideal next-door neighbours but most of us know people who share some of their traits. Stoppard is always good at getting under the skin of his audience. This revival shows it.


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